The first presentation I did about my company for the venture capital fund where I was an Entrepreneur in Residence (EIR) was titled, “Where are the engineers?.” The point I was trying to drive home to the partnership was simple: The success or failure of my company would rest on our ability to recruit elite engineering talent.
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It’s cliche, but true. An elite engineering team will produce elite products. A mediocre engineering team will produce mediocre products.
I’d been fortunate in my career to work with elite engineers, and I’d also been fortunate in my career to work with mediocre engineers. In short, I knew what I was looking for.
If you want to build a great engineering team, then you’d better find a great VP Engineering or CTO.
Here’s what you’re looking for:
A. A great hands-on engineer.
A great startup VP Engineering is still a practicing, hands-on engineer. You can’t just manage. You actually still have to design.
But being a great engineer is not enough…
B. Your great VP Engineering has to recruit other great engineers.
You’e going to have to build your team to be a great VP Engineering. That means you have to be able to recruit other elite engineers.
Great engineers only want to work for the best. If you bring on a B-level VP Engineering, then you’re only going to have B-level and C-level engineers. Needless to say, the success of your company is questionable at best.
A great VP Engineering isn’t just a great recruiter…
C. Your great VP Engineering needs to manage and lead your team of elite engineers.
Have you ever tried to manage and lead a team of really creative people? It isn’t easy.
Great engineers are, contrary to popular opinion, expecting to be led and managed. And to lead and manage an elite team of engineers you have to earn their respect.
That means your engineering team is going to have to respect your VP Engineering technically. And because it’s a team of creatives, your VP Engineering is going to have to manage a team of, to say it mildly, diverse personalities.
But there’s more…
D. Your great VP Engineering needs great business skills.
Probably the scariest employee in a startup is a VP Engineering that doesn’t have business skills. Oh the destruction that person can have.
“John”, the first VP Engineering cofounder of my company, didn’t have business sense. And John almost destroyed our company.
The last thing John ever said to me was, “I know better than you how to run a company.” John then stole the IP of the company (down to the slide deck we were using to raise money) and failed.
Jeroen, John’s replacement, had business skills. Jeroen became someone I could bounce business ideas off, and I would get reliably good advice in return. That’s what you want in your VP Engineering.
But there’s one more thing…
E. You want a VP Engineering that can present to investors.
When you raise money, it’s going to be you and your VP Engineering driving the meetings. Everything will fall apart if your VP Engineering can’t clearly and simply explain your technology to investors.
Okay, I’ve explained what you’re looking for in your VP Engineering. The real question is how do you get this person to join your startup?
A great VP Engineering isn’t going to join your company unless you demonstrate you have something of significant value.
By value, I don’t mean money, even thought that is important too. I do mean your VP Engineering is going to have get excited about what your company is doing.
So, as a CEO I worked for once said to me, “you’re going to have to sell your ass off.”
That’s exactly what I did when I was recruiting. I pitched the company and our vision. Some candidates got excited by what we were doing, and some candidates didn’t get excited by what we were doing.
I felt pretty confident that eventually I’d find the right person because my pitch was resonating with enough potential candidates. If it wasn’t resonating with any potential candidates, then I’d be worried.
You’re going to have to be transparent with your future VP Engineering.
Probably the smartest thing I did, despite my bad experience with John, was being extremely transparent with every candidate I met with. I knew there was potential risk, but I also knew I had to take the risk.
The type of person I was trying to recruit, an elite manager and engineer, wasn’t going to settle for opaqueness. This person wanted, rightfully, to be my partner.
You can’t enter a serious relationship, like the one between a CEO and VP Engineering/CTO, unless you are completely open. That will give you the best chance of success.
There will be a trickle down effect from the VP Engineering with every other engineer you hire.
As I said in point B above, great engineers only want to work with other great engineers. Hiring Jeroen set the bar really, really high for our engineering talent. The result was we, in my humble opinion, had the best engineering team, pound for pound, in our industry.